It was over twenty years ago that three young Australian’s sat down in Perth and decided to form the band that would go on to become the critically lauded Sodastream. Indeed, it was nearly twenty years ago that their original drummer left and they decided to carry on as a two piece, consisting of Pete Cohen on upright-bass and Karl Smith on acoustic guitar. Between 1997 and 2006, the pair released four albums, four EPs, and toured the world playing with the likes of Yo La Tengo, Smog and Low, as well as appearing at the first ever All Tomorrows Parties at the request of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. Then in February 2007, following the release and subsequent touring that surrounding their fourth album, Reservations, the band in their own words, “fell in a heap, and that was it”.
That was it until 2013 at least, when having spent the intervening years getting jobs, bringing up children and playing in other bands, the pair re-united. Initially playing together in another band Lee Memorial, before realising the time seemed right to bring Sodastream back to the world.
With the return of Sodastream, it has become clear that this is very much a project being carried out by the duo’s own rules, some three years after they first reformed, they recently released Little By Little, the first new Sodastream material in eleven years, and quite possibly the bands best work yet.
The care and time that has gone into making Little By Little is obvious, it is a record that sounds remarkably mature, as if the songs have been given the space to evolve, and grow into themselves, and fulfil their full potential. One of the intriguing things about Sodastream is how they seem to pick and choose from genres, and nationalities of music; there’s a touch of the Scottish indie-pop stylings of bands like Ballboy or Belle & Sebastian, some of the folkish Americana of Bill Callahan or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and yet beneath it all is something distinctly Australian – Sodastream fit neatly into a lineage from The Triffids through to The Goon Sax.
The album’s highlight is the darkly emotional Three Sins; building around a pulsating bass-line, and gently strummed acoustic, it is a reflection on human nature and the way people can hide their darkest thoughts and desires from the world around them. It’s a reflection on terrorist attacks, bush fires, and the paedophile in the Catholic Church, as Karl from the band says, “as I thought about it, I realised that the firebugs, the paedophile priests and the suicide bombers had a lot in common. They all inflicted untold suffering on completely random, innocent people for no other reason than to satisfy their own desires and beliefs”. The song builds to a fitting crescendo of impassioned yelps, before gently fading away, it’s a remarkable piece of story-telling and equally fine song writing.
Sodastream are currently in the UK to play as part of the shows marking the end of the Fortuna Pop label, recently retired after twenty years by label head-honcho Sean Price, who released the band’s 2003 album, A Minor Revival, as well as 2006’s album Reservation. Ahead of that show, Pete from the band was kind enough to sit down and answer our questions, taking in discussions on the future of labels, the reasons behind Sodastream’s reformation and how their relationship with music has changed over time.
FTR: For those who don’t know who/what are Sodastream?
PC – We are band from Australia. When we started 20 years ago we were three piece and playing fairly crunchy pop music. It was one of those tracks – Turnstyle – which got picked up by John Peel and that kick started our career. Nowadays we are a duo centred around acoustic guitar and double bass, and we record with lots of collaborators and various instruments.
FTR: It’s been over a decade since your last album, obvious question, where’ve you been all this time?
PC – Mainly, we have been getting on with life – having kids, establishing careers that can actually pay the bills etc. But we have also both kept busy musically. I played and toured with a few bands, including Luluc who are now based in the USA. Karl released a solo record and formed a band called Lee Memorial. I ended up joining that band on electric bass during its later stages, and then as the other members faded away for various reasons, it was just Karl and I left! One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were dusting off the old Sodastream songs.
FTR: Why did this seem like the right time to get back together?
PC – The main reason we hung up the gloves in 2007 is that we were burnt out from the relentless cycle of recording and touring. We never quite broke through to the point where things were financially sustainable, so the whole lifestyle was just really taking a toll, and the only way to preserve our health and friendship was to pull the pin. We’ve now recovered from that time, and have established the aspects of our lives which were otherwise being neglected. And now we have the opportunity and the privilege to play our music for new and different reasons – not because we are chasing the rock and roll dream of making a career out of it, but just because we love doing it, and are chuffed that we still able to make strong connections to people through our songs.
FTR: What can you tell us about recording Little By Little?
PC – Recording the album was a very slow and somewhat fragmented process. A few of the song beds (drums, guitar, bass) were actually recorded as part of the Reservations sessions back in 2005 or so. At the time we had too many songs for one album and intended to follow up the quieter Reservations with a more upbeat album. Our plan did play out – just with an extra 10 years in between! So we had about half an album, and then the rest of the songs came together really naturally and easily. Between all of the family commitments and day job madness, it took us about 3 years to finish the recording. We were very lucky to be able to lean heavily on our long time collaborator Marty Brown (who has played drums on all our recordings since Looks Like a Russian in 1999) to take care of the production and mixing.
FTR: Did you do things differently to previous albums?
PC – In the past we would smash out an album recording relatively quickly between tours, spending around two to three months locked in the studio. This time was obviously very different, with months passing in between sessions and the whole process taking years. That had lots of obvious effects – more time to ponder and percolate ideas. And sometimes there was too much time to stew over arrangements or the tone of a particular instrument. The other big difference was that Karl and I were less hands on in the production side of things. Whereas previously we would have been present for pretty much every minute of the process – even when working with other engineers and producers – this time around we put much more trust and control into Marty’s hands. I think this helped at a lot of levels in that he was able to achieve a more polished sound from a technical perspective, and also was able to bring more of his vision to the tone and feel of the album as a whole.
FTR: You’ve been credited with helping foster a flourishing Australian guitar-pop scene, how does that idea sit with you?
PC – I guess we all play a part in the ecosystems we are a part of, like it or not. We worked really hard back in the day and established strong relationships with a lot of bands and labels. And we always did things a bit differently and organised gigs in weird places, pulled together compilation of Australian music videos, and organised label showcase gigs and stuff like that. So all that contributes to a building scene. And we continued a tradition of Australian bands like the Triffids, The Dirty Three and the Go Betweens who took their music abroad and established themselves overseas. So it sits well to think that some of our fellow musicians have been inspired by the path we took, and by what they hear in our sound.
FTR: What do you think of the current Australian scene? Any bands we should be looking out for?
PC – We are a bit out of touch now, at least relative to the years when we were attending gigs weekly and were really absorbed in the industry and the scene. From what we hear, the Milk Records crew (Courtney Barnett, Fraser A Gorman, Camp Cope etc) are doing some cool stuff that really captures a particularly Australian vibe which we relate to – the storytelling in the songs, being rough around the edges and not trying to fit in a box. A couple of Melbourne bands we really love are The Orbweavers and Grand Salvo. They are making really beautiful music and are powering on with making records for what seem to be similar reasons to why we are.
FTR: Why do you make music?
PC – I’ve come to understand and appreciate it as a more of responsibility to ourselves and to those around us, to make the most of this opportunity to form these songs and bring them out into the world. It probably sounds incredibly wanky to say that, but it is how it feels! On a personal front, it is a really powerful creative outlet. We both work in pretty intense jobs these days, and we are up against it like the rest of the world – trying to do our best to add some value and make a difference, but with limited autonomy and control. Whereas with our music and the band, it is all up to us. The heavy financial constraints which used to weigh us down are less of a concern now that we don’t depend on the band for income and can pay for the production of the records ourselves rather than relying on record deals. So it is a great feeling to own and drive a process through from beginning to end, and very rewarding when it all works out and we receive good feedback.
From a more outward perspective, I’ve been reflecting more recently on what music means to us all. It is a pretty special phenomenon when thought about a certain way – that these sounds and words create connections amongst people, and they can affect our mood and wellbeing. We could stop at writing and recording our music and still achieve a certain level of creative outlet. But by going the next step of sharing it with people and creating the connection that is where the real magic seems to emerge, and playing the songs live even more so. This tour will be the first since we have had young children, so being away from them and our partners for an extended period feels like a massive sacrifice. But there is a sense of purpose and responsibility to take the music to people which drives us forward.
FTR: Does music still excite you as much as it did when you started in 1996?
PC – Yes, but in different ways. I think we have a much deeper appreciation now of what it takes to consistently make good music. And there is excitement in reaching new levels in terms of our playing and songwriting. But for me at least, there is probably less excitement in the stuff around the periphery. The industry has been demystified for us, and we know how the mechanics of it all work. So while we still really appreciate things like good reviews and invitations to play in interesting places, it doesn’t excite us in quite the same way as when we were 21 and at the beginning of the journey.
FTR: Who are your musical inspirations? What were you listening to when you wrote Little by Little?
PC – We both listen to a fair bit of American new country style music – Will Oldham, Richard Buckner, Bill Callahan and the like. A band who I was listening to a lot around the time we were finishing the album, and who I had the good fortune of seeing live just recently in Melbourne is Teenage Fanclub. I am inspired by the way they have weaved such a consistent catalogue over the decades. The other night I noted they look even more like a bunch of dads than we do, but they looked so happy to be up there playing, and they sounded like I remember then nearly 20 years ago when I first saw them at The Bowlie Weekender. It feels like they have always stayed true to the music and never sold out, and it is inspiring to see them still kicking goals.
FTR: What about inspiration outside of music?
PC – These days we are both pretty absorbed in family life and bringing up our young children. So that provides a lot of inspiration – seeing them grow and come into the world really is something else. And other than that I think that to a degree it is about not closing off to the world too much, and to see the grit and to feel the pain of those who go through their struggles. It is that energy which finds its way back into the music and the performances, and that somehow keeps the cogs turning.
FTR: You’re coming over to the UK for the Fortuna Pop farewell shows, what does the label mean to you?
PC – Fortuna POP holds a special place for us. We worked with many labels over the years, and one of the things we relished in was the sense of community which each label fostered. Fortuna POP, with Sean at the helm, really feels like a family. We had a moment early in our career where we could have elected to sign with a major label, but instead chose an independent alternative – a real “red pill, blue pill” moment. I often reflect on that moment and that decision, and one can’t help but wonder what might have been. But the thing we do know is the reasons why we chose the independent route – and that was to always to be in a position where we can stay true to the music, and to only work with like minded folks who are in it for the right reasons. Fortuna POP is epitome of that. We are gutted that Sean has called time on the label, but we understand why and are thankful he held out this long, and that he is going out with a bang.
FTR: Do you think labels are still important? Do bands need them?
PC – This is a bit of a sore point for me. I have always had a deep respect for labels, and in particular label managers. They formed such a crucial layer of the industry and the scene. They are the folks who curate the sound, simultaneously responding to trends and creating them. They are the ones who had the business nous to help bands bring their music to the world, and to coach them through the process. I speak in the past tense, because with Sean’s departure, I think that is the last of the label managers that we ever worked with closely to exit the indie music business. No doubt, the central reason is that there is no money left in the equation any more – everyone has been squeezed out.
On one hand, I think that leaves a massive gap. In the absence of a label, it’s up to the musicians to form a strategy for a release and to pull together all of the logistics around pressing and distributing an album. And I don’t know if it is even possible to recreate the sense of community that exists around a well run label.
On the other hand, in the ten years since the last Sodastream record was released, a lot has changed. Digital distribution is far more accessible in several respects, and that alone is a pretty big game changer. Back in the day, if your record wasn’t on the shelves, no one was getting it. The other big change is social media, and particularly Facebook. It seems to be doing that job of spreading the word and pulling people together. So bands can survive without a label, but I think that bands and music lovers alike are all poorer for their demise.
FTR: What can people expect from the Sodastream live show?
PC – We’ll be touring in our standard duo format, so acoustic guitar and double bass, plus saw and piano and bits and pieces. I think that we are playing really well, and our voices are much stronger than previously having given up the smokes.
With such an extensive back catalogue and a new album in hand, it is proving very difficult to select which songs to play. But we are working hard to get the balance right to have all of the essential elements represented. And unlike prior tours where we were pretty run down after months upon years on the road, we have a renewed energy and desire to be playing our music.
FTR: Does the idea of life on the road still appeal to you?
PC – Not really, to be honest. Being away from our families I anticipate is going to be almost unbearable. While I can’t wait for the actual performances, to catch up with old friends and to make new ones, the spoils of the rock and roll lifestyle no longer appeal. If we can find a way to make short bursts of touring financially sustainable, then that will be the ideal sweet spot, so that is what we are aiming for.
FTR: What are you aspirations for Little By Little? Is music still a viable career?
PC – We have long given up on music as a viable career for us. We just want our music to reach people who want to hear it, and for it to have some significance for them.
We see Little by Little as our re-entry, and our goal is to get back on people’s radar. We are really happy so far with how it has been received and the doors it has opened up for us. We didn’t actually plan to tour internationally, but then with the invite Fortuna POP farewell show, it all just fell into place. So we will go with the flow and see where the journey takes us during this next chapter.
FTR: What’s next for Sodastream? Touring? More recording?
PC – Definitely more writing and recording. As the age old cycle goes, once preparing for a release and a tour, it is hard to work on new material. So we are itching to get stuck into the next batch of songs. We don’t quite know what the rest of it will look like – whether we batch songs up to release albums, or put out songs or shorter releases more frequently, or a combination. We have had some fun doing Facebook Live performances and will be doing some living room shows in Australia around mid year. So we are experimenting with new ways to bring our live performance to people, without the usual overheads.
Little By Little is out now. Sodastream play as part of Fortuna Pop’s Twenty Years Of Trouble this Friday at Islington Assembly Hall, then at Rough Trade West on Sunday. Click HERE for more information on the band.